How global warming finally became a presidential campaign issue

Cuomo and Bloomberg. (Flickr)
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Michael Bloomberg announced his endorsement of Barack Obama today in a 969-word statement posted on Bloomberg View and his personal website. 

The statement made reference to the differences between the candidates on same-sex marriage and abortion rights. But the primary issue the independent, aggressively antipartisan mayor cited for his decision is one that has decidedly not been front-and-center this campaign season, but which is suddenly unavoidable: climate change.

"We need leadership from the White House – and over the past four years, President Barack Obama has taken major steps to reduce our carbon consumption, including setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks," it said.

Bloomberg's statement follows a press conference in Manhattan earlier this week about the response to Hurricane Sandy, at which Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, "Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality."

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Cuomo's mere acknowledgment of the issue drew praise from environmentalists, notwithstanding the governor's statement that he didn't want to engage in a "political debate."

"Governor Cuomo is doing what leaders are supposed to do," said Steve Cohen, the executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, in an email to Capital yesterday. "He is using this crisis to set the agenda for the future."

Obama and Mitt Romney have both said in the past that they believe that climate change is occurring, and that man's actions have at least some impact on changing climate conditions.

But Romney has long since backed off the support for anti-emmissions programs he expressed when he was governor of Massachusetts, and a much more liberal politician in general.

In his endorsement of Obama, Bloomberg referred to Romney's onetime support for a  regional cap-and-trade plan, then wrote, "[S]ince then, he has reversed course, abandoning the very cap-and-trade program he once supported," Bloomberg wrote. "This issue is too important. We need determined leadership at the national level to move the nation and the world forward."

The endorsement, in a sense, is a prod, too; Bloomberg is now talking more forcefully about global warming (and about Obama's record on emmissions and climate change) than Obama himself has in the wake of the hurricane.

At a public appearance in New Jersey on Wednesday afternoon, Obama didn't so much as mention it.

In theory, it might have been the perfect place to make a bipartisan case for addressing the issue, since he was making a rare joint appearance with Gov. Chris Christie, who has remained a Republican star despite bucking the party's base last year when he said "climate change is real," that "human activity plays a role in these changes," and that it is "impacting our state."

That kind of bluntness hasn't spilled over into this year's presidential election, or at least hadn't until the hurricane.

"Global warming" didn't merit so much as a mention in the presidential debates for the first time since 1988, and a New York Times story last week, which ran before the "Frankenstorm" predictions began to surface on the Weather Channel, noted the issue had been glaringly absent for much of the campaign.

The oblique mentions of climate change have mostly come in the form of talk about clean energy, which is itself couched more in economic terms than environmental ones.

"Don’t forget, you put $90 billion, like 50 years’ worth of [tax] breaks, into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tesla and Ener1," said Romney, in attack mode during the first debate. "I mean, I had a friend who said you don’t just pick the winners and losers, you pick the losers, all right? So this—this is not—this is not the kind of policy you want to have if you want to get America energy secure."

Both sides are still courting potential swing voters in the coal industry of states like Ohio, where climate change threatens to derail the fossil fuel business. Likewise, anything the likes of Andrew Cuomo or Michael Bloomberg have to say on the topic is going to be heard a lot louder in states like New York, which are already firmly in the president's column, than in any of the places that are ostensibly up for grabs.

Obama's surrogates haven't exactly flooded the national airwaves to talk about the issue, and the only mention has come from one who makes his own talking points.

"You remember what he did?" Bill Clinton asked a crowd in Minnesota yesterday, about Romney's performance in the first debate. "He ridiculed the president, ridiculed the president for his efforts to fight global warming in economically beneficial ways. 

"He said, ‘Oh, you’re going to turn back the seas.’ In my part of America, we would like it if someone could’ve done that yesterday."

He added, "In the real world, Barack Obama’s policies work better."

In his statement today acknowledging Bloomberg's endorsement, Obama did include a line calling climate change “a threat to our children’s future, and we owe it to them to do something about it.” On this occasion, he couldn't really avoid it.